The daughter of the actor Henry Fonda, one of the most famous actors of his generation, Jane was born in 1937. Her mother was the Canadian socialite Frances Ford Seymour and it was the second marriage for them both. Jane Fonda’s childhood, although socially privileged and never for want of money, was nonetheless far from easy. When Jane was just twelve her mother killed herself while in a psychiatric hospital. Jane was never told the truth about what happened and only found out when reading a movie magazine. Fonda would later say that her mother’s medical records revealed that she had been a victim of repeated sexual abuse as a child.
After acting on Broadway with some success her film career began in 1960 with Tall Story. Playing opposite Anthony Perkins Fonda recreated her broadway role as a college cheerleader. Robert Redford also made his debut in the same film. Playing a prostitute in Walk on the Wild Side made in 1962 earned Fonda a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer.
In 1965 Fonda married, at the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas, her first husband, French film director Roger Vadim. In 1968 they had a daughter named after the actress and activist Vanessa Redgrave. In the same year Fonda played the title role in the science fiction spoof Barbarella, which which made her famous throughout the world. The following year, in a more serious role, she received her first
nomination for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969). Around this time she turned town lead roles in Rosemary’s Baby and Bonnie and Clyde.
While Fonda was living in France with Vadim she went to her first anti-war protest. when she attended her first antiwar rally although she was initially shocked with the anti-Americanism: “It was all about how horrible America was,” Fonda once explained to the New Yorker. Looking back on her life she felt that at the time she thought women were unable to change anything but started to change her mind after watching French television news showing the damage American bombers were doing to Vietnamese schools, hospitals, and churches.
Fonda’s political activism began soon after appearing in Barbarella and she recently recalled in the Guardian -“and I took a lot of heat on it from feminists. The new women’s movement was in its early stages and there was a lot of…” she adopts a comically stern voice: “‘How do you feel making a movie that exploits women, like Barbarella?’ You’d kind of want to say: ‘Well, honey, nobody forced me.’ But,” she concedes, “it wasn’t much fun to make it.”
The change from ‘actress to activist’ confused many movie-goers and reviewers. The Guardian in 1971 wrote:
Jane Fonda, in her early incarnations, was not at all unattractive as the high spirited and rebellious sex symbol who starred in 18 movies. It’s a risk that her fans will be turned off by the sight of a 33 year old one-time sex kitten assuming a pose that is both asexual and astringent. Miss Fonda’s current views would make it impossible for her to work in another film like “Barbarella”: “I think it was good entertainment and rather vapid and exploitive of women. And I wouldn’t make a movie like that again.”
Along with other celebrities, including Anthony Quinn, Merv Griffin and Creedence Clearwater Revival who donated a boat called “Clearwater”, Fonda supported the Alcatraz Island occupation by Native Americans in 1969 attempting to get publicity about treaty rights and greater Native American sovereignty.
Fonda also supported Huey Newton and the Black Panthers at one point saying: “Revolution is an act of love; we are the children of revolution, born to be rebels. It runs in our blood.” She also called the Black Panthers “our revolutionary vanguard … we must support them with love, money, propaganda and risk”.
In April 1970, Fonda and her co-star in the movie Klute, Donald Sutherland formed the FTA tour (“Free The Army”, unofficially – “Fuck The Army”), an anti-war road show attempting to counteract Bob Hope’s USO tour.
In July 1972, when Fonda accepted an invitation to visit North Vietnam where during her two-week stay, Fonda stated that she thought the US was unjustly bombing farmland and civilian areas a long way from military targets. It was reported that Fonda made several radio announcements over the Voice of Vietnam radio to implore U.S. pilots to stop the bombings.
“I appealed to them to please consider what you are doing. I don’t think they know,” Fonda said in a news conference when she returned home. “The people who are speaking out against the war are the patriots.”
In 2015 on her personal website Fonda tried to explain what happened in Vietnam:
I hardly even thought about where I was sitting. The cameras flashed. I got up, and as I started to walk back to the car with the translator, the implication of what had just happened hit me. ‘Oh my God. It’s going to look like I was trying to shoot down U.S. planes.’ I pleaded with him, ‘You have to be sure those photographs are not published. Please, you can’t let them be published.’ I was assured it would be taken care of. I didn’t know what else to do.